Photograph by Tavi Murray
Photograph by Alex P. Taylor
Birthplace: Oxford, U.K.
Current City: Swandea, Wales, U.K.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was a small child I wanted to be a pirate! I thought this meant that I could live at sea and do things my parents wouldn't. As I got a bit older I knew I wanted to be a scientist. I was fascinated by microscopes, had a chemistry set in my bedroom, programmed computers when I could get my hands on them, and built electronic circuits. In fact I have managed to combine both ambitions! I am a scientist, I have the privilege of regularly living in a tent or a small boat in some of the most stunning landscapes on the planet—and I certainly do things my parents never have!
How did you get started in your field of work?
In some ways it was by luck. I studied physics and computer science as an undergraduate student: I was fascinated by physics and wanted to make a career in this field. But I also knew I didn't want to do research funded by the defense industry. That naturally led me toward the environmental geosciences. At the same time my housemate was doing an honors dissertation in glaciology—everyone in the house ended up helping her out when the deadline loomed. I got especially interested and she mentioned me to her supervisor. I talked to him, wrote a proposal, and a few months later he became my Ph.D. supervisor. I was on the road to becoming a glaciologist!
What inspires you to dedicate your life to glaciology?
I am inspired by both the breathtaking beauty of polar landscapes and by their fragility. I love the interplay between the subtle whiteness of the snow, ice, and crevasses, and the low sunlight—often apricot orange or strawberry pink in color. I am equally moved by the unearthly greens that characterize the aurora playing in the sky above the glaciers and mountain peaks, and the dark blues that surround the full moon over the sea ice. I have seen glaciers shrinking in places I have returned to year-on-year. Our planet is a very special and delicate place!
What's a normal day like for you?
There is no such thing! A day in the field might involve loading sledges, donning thick Arctic clothing, carrying a gun as protection against polar bears, and driving a snow scooter. Equally it might involve a storm at sea on a small boat or a day taking an engine apart to try and fix it! We spend quite some time with instruments, nurse-maiding them to ensure that they work properly and plotting data to see what our instruments are telling us. In the office I spend time in meetings, writing computer programs, and applying for money!
Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?
I think, like most polar people, my hero is Ernest Shackleton. I greatly admire his overriding concern for the people on his expeditions, his sheer determination to succeed in the face of adversity, his absolute belief in a positive outcome, and, of course, his achievements—especially in taking the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia—are legendary!
What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?
It's hard to choose a single "favorite" experience—there are so many to choose from! One I'll never forget was in Svalbard—we were traveling from Longyearbyen to the Polish Research Station in Hornsund by snow scooter. We had scootered up a glacier and the mountains closed in progressively on either side, almost oppressively, and then suddenly ... we were at the top, and the next fjord opened up below us. Magnificent calving glaciers, each crevasse highlighted in gold, tiny icebergs frozen into the snow-covered sea ice, each glinting in the sun: a miraculous tiny world far beneath us.
My most challenging field experience was probably when I woke up in my tent one morning at 6 a.m. to hear loud growling! We were camped on a glacier in Svalbard and there was a tripwire around camp to warn if a polar bear came. The wire was about 15 feet from our tents. At that point in time a bear had its feet on either side of the wire, and it wasn't happy—and its friend was about 30 feet behind it. I grabbed my glasses (fogged at first, of course), wiped them clear, and then loaded a gun before opening the tent door, all the time shouting warnings to my companion. That bear encounter involved me firing a warning shot, and I'm pleased to say that with all my others, I've also never needed anything more than that. The most challenging part was probably sleeping the night afterward in the same tent when the mist had rolled in and visibility was about 30 feet.
What are your other passions?
I love expansive views from mountaintops and, equally, the escape provided by a good book by a fireside while a winter storm rages.
What do you do in your free time?
At the moment I spend my free time kayaking, sailing, and mountain walking. I have a 17-foot (5-meter) sea kayak and love to explore the sandy coves and caves of the south Wales coast. It's pretty amazing to see seals, porpoises, and puffins close-up too, and if I'm feeling adventurous there are surf waves and tide races to play in. I also love snow and ice in the Brecon Beacons, our own local mountains here in south Wales.
If you could have people do one thing to help climate change, what would it be?
I guess I would want each person to take personal responsibility for taking positive steps to reduce their own impacts on the climate and environment. I meet a lot of people who feel they have no power to change things. Yes, the changes each one of us makes individually is tiny—just a drop in the ocean. But just remember that sea-level rise is the accumulation of all of those drops! You can make a difference!
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Yes, the changes each one of us makes individually is tiny—just a drop in the ocean. But just remember that sea-level rise is the accumulation of all of those drops! You can make a difference!
Sarah talks about her inspirations before departing for Ellesmere Island.
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